Setting is a key element in Chopin’s novel, The Awakening To the novel’s main character, Edna Pontellier, house is not home. Edna was not herself when enclosed behind the walls of the Pontellier mansion. Instead, she was another person entirely– someone she would like to forget. Similarly, Edna takes on a different identity in her vacation setting in Grand Isle, in her independent home in New Orleans, and in just about every other environment that she inhabits. In fact, Edna seems to drift from setting to setting in the novel, never really finding her true self – until the end of the novel.
Chopin seems highly concerned with this question throughout her narrative. On a larger scale, the author seems to be probing even more deeply into the essence of the female experience: Do women in general have a place in the world, and is the life of a woman the cumbersome pursuit to find that very place? The Awakening struggles with this question, raising it to multiple levels of complexity. Edna finds liberation and happiness in various places throughout the novel, yet this is almost immediately countered by unhappiness and misery. Even at the end, the reader is still left with the question of whether Edna has truly found a setting in which she can finally be herself.
Many readers would argue that Edna finds this niche in her seaside vacation home on Grand Isle. To Edna, the sea is a wide expanse of opportunity and liberation from the constricting socialite world of French Quarter New Orleans. Chopin’s lavish descriptions of the sea give us an insight into its powerful effect on Edna:
The voice of the sea is seductive; never ceasing, whis…
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…e Awakening.” 1899. The Complete Works of Kate Chopin. Ed. Per Seyersted. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1969. 881-1000.
Delbanco, Andrew. “The Half-Life of Edna Pontellier.” New Essays on The Awakening. Ed. Wendy Martin. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1988. 89-106.
Gilmore, Michael T. “Revolt Against Nature: The Problematic Modernism of The Awakening.” Martin 59-84.
Giorcelli, Cristina. “Edna’s Wisdom: A Transitional and Numinous Merging.” Martin 109-39.
Martin, Wendy, ed. New Essays on the Awakening. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1988.
Papke, Mary E. Verging on the Abyss: The Social Fiction of Kate Chopin and Edith Wharton. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1990.
Seyersted, Per. Kate Chopin: A Critical Biography. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1969.
Showalter, Elaine. “Tradition and the Female Talent: The Awakening as a Solitary Book.” Martin 33-55.
Use of Nature in Chopin’s Awakening and Langston Hughes’ Poems
Langston Hughes and Kate Chopin use nature in several dimensions to demonstrate the powerful struggles and burdens of human life. Throughout Kate Chopin’s The Awakening and several of Langston Hughes’ poems, the sweeping imagery of the beauty and power of nature demonstrates the struggles the characters confront, and their eventual freedom from those struggles. Nature and freedom coexist, and the characters eventually learn to find freedom from the confines of society, oneself, and finally freedom within one’s soul. The use of nature for this purpose brings the characters and speakers in Chopin’s and Hughes’ works to life, and the reader feels the life and freedom of those characters.
Nature, in the works of Chopin and Hughes serves as a powerful symbol that represents the struggle of the human soul towards freedom, the anguish of that struggle, and the joy when that freedom is finally reached. In The Awakening, the protagonist Edna Pontellier undergoes a metamorphosis. She lives in Creole society, a society that restricts sexuality, especially for women of the time. Edna is bound by the confines of a loveless marriage, unfulfilled, unhappy, and closed in like a caged bird. During her summer at Grand Isle she is confronted with herself in her truest nature, and finds herself swept away by passion and love for someone she cannot have, Robert Lebrun.
The imagery of the ocean at Grand Isle and its attributes symbolize a force calling her to confront her internal struggles, and find freedom. Chopin uses the imagery of the ocean to represent the innate force within her soul that is calling to her. “The voice of the sea is seductive; never ceasing, whispering, clamoring, murmuring, inviting the soul to wander for a spell in abysses of solitude; to lose itself in a maze of inward contemplation.” (p.14) Through nature and its power, Edna, begins to find freedom in her soul and then returns to a life in the city where reside the conflicts that surround her. Edna grew up on a Mississippi plantation, where life was simple, happy, and peaceful. The images of nature, which serve as a symbol for freedom of the soul, appear when she speaks of this existence. In the novel, she remembers a simpler life when she was a child, engulfed in nature and free: “The hot wind beating in my face made me think – without any connection that I can trace – of a summer day in Kentucky, of a meadow that seemed as big as the ocean to the very little girl walking through the grass, which was higher than her waist.